It was getting late in the afternoon, but Derek decided he had enough time to walk them down to Lothbury Street.
“I haven’t had a chance to visit the wine shop yet,” he said. “I’d like to see how Lucy and Lora are doing.”
They walked east along Marylebone to Aldwich, then followed Lothbury Street all the way north, where it ended at Upping.
But almost as soon as they were out the door, Derek returned to his previous complaint.
“Everybody wants to get investment advice,” he said. “There’s a gold rush out there right now with the new exploration routes and expansion out beyond the asteroid belt. But I can’t talk about any of it. That would be insider trading. The regulators are cracking down.”
Matilda looked at Ellison and rolled her eyes.
“It can’t be that bad, can it?” she asked. “It’s probably just a slap on the wrist, right? It’s one of those, you know, minor little white-collar crimes. No real punishment. It’s like anyone would go to jail.”
Ellison winced. He had spent five years in jail on a white-collar crime. Alleged crime. It was why he was now serving subpoenas and interviewing alcoholics instead of making a cushy living in a nice corporate job.
“Oh, they’re serious,” said Derek. “And it’s a common misconception that conversations on private worlds like Krim are completely anonymous. They’re not. All the regulators need is suspicion of collusion and then can subpoena’s Krim records and get the recordings of all the conversations that even hint at insider information being exchange.”
“But how would they even get suspicious?” Matilda asked.
“They track investment patterns,” said Derek. “So I have to be really careful. People forget that everything in-world is recorded. But I don’t forget. I can’t forget, because I have to attend mandatory compliance seminars. I had to sit through a two-hour refresher yesterday.”
For someone who didn’t want to talk about work, Derek talked about work a lot. He complained about the compliance seminar all the way to the wine shop.
There, Ellison and Matilda were disappointed to find out that, in fact, Lucylicious and Lovely Lora had retired and weren’t anywhere near the Armforge Guild party the night before.
“Last time we were there was two weeks ago,” Lucy said.
The both remembered the three alcoholics, though.
“They threw up on my dress,” said Lora.
“And my mink stole,” said Lucy.
“In fact, that’s one of the reasons we decided to finally retire,” said Lora. “That, and the fact that this shop became available.”
“It’s a prime location,” said Lucy. “All the art galleries around here have openings, and like to serve wine and cheese.”
“And artists like to drink,” added Lora.
“But the clientele is much higher class. Nobody has thrown up on us once since we opened.”
Ellison and Matilda left Derek behind at the wine shop and trudged back to the rooming house where Hellcut, Gorehair, and Rainbow Squirtle were staying.
Something wasn’t adding up.
“If nobody else at the party saw the wenches, and the wenches themselves say they weren’t there, then Hellcut and the other two guys probably imagined the whole thing,” said Ellison.
“They seemed pretty sure,” said Matilda.
“Maybe they were confused,” said Ellison. “Maybe they were thinking of that other party, two weeks ago.”
When they returned to Knots Hollow Way, they found Hellcut and his pals still drinking at the Butt and Oyster, the bar across the street from the rooming house. The three of them were only barely vertical.
“We’re not going to get anything out of them,” Matilda said.
But the bartender remembered the three from the night before.
“They’re always in here,” he said. “We get all the mercenary traffic, and the wenches.”
“Anything unusual happen?” asked Ellison.
“No,” said the bartender. “They came in, they said something about wanting to get a head start on drinking because they were on their way to a party.”
“What time did they leave?”
“I don’t know. Maybe around seven or eight?” The bartender tried to think back. “One thing was unusual, though. There were a couple of wenches who helped them walk out. Bought them drinks, too.”
“They bought drinks for the wenches?”
“No, the wenches bought drinks for them. They were barely walking when they left. I didn’t think they’d drunk that much, but they were kind of out of it. I’d be surprised if they ever actually made it to the party.”
“Well, we know they did,” said Matilda. “Maybe they sobered up just enough to make it over there.”
“Who were the wenches with them?” asked Ellison.
“That I don’t know,” said the bartender. “I know most of the local talent fairly well, so I’m guessing they were tourists. Didn’t walk like wenches, either.”
“What were they wearing last night?” Matilda asked.
The bartender glanced over at the three men, who of whom had slid down to the floor and were half-leaning against the back wall. “Same think they’re wearing now.”
“Are you sure?”
Matilda walked over to Hellcut, who was still draped across the table, snoring. She bent down and examined his shirt.
“I think this is the shirt he was wearing when we woke him up,” she said. She sniffed at it, then poked at some of the dried stains. “I’d say he’s been wearing it for a few days now.”
“So they got drunk here last night,” said Ellison. “Then they walked across the street to the rooming house, and changed into clean clothes. Then went to the party, threw up on their clean shirts, took them off, walked back home, and put the old shirts back on.”
Matilda slapped Hellcut several times, until he woke up.
“Huh? What?” He grabbed his head and moaned.
The bartender stepped closer. “They usually hold their liquor pretty well,” he said. “I haven’t seen them this bad before. Well, last night. But not prior. Usually, they just drink enough to get rowdy, not passing-out drunk like this.” He shook his head.
Matilda shook Hellcut until he looked up and focused on her face. “Did you go home and change your shirt last night?”
“What?” He blinked up at her. “I only have this shirt.”
“You don’t have a second shirt?”
“No.” Hellcut blinked hard, then wiped at his eyes. “If I need clean clothes I go in and out through the gate.”
“How much did they have to drink today?” asked Matilda.
“Just one beer each,” said the bartender.
“And last night?”
“Two or three, maybe.”
“I think they were drugged,” said Matilda.
“Why?” asked Ellison.
“To get them out of the way,” she said. “Somebody didn’t want them going to that party.”
“You think they were knocked out and someone impersonated them,” said Ellison.
“Nobody got close enough to talk to them last night,” she said. “And it was dark.”
“Still, whoever did it must have been pretty good at disguises,” said Ellison.
“Not disguises,” said Matilda. “Avatar design. Someone created three avatars that looked identical — or close enough, anyway — to these three guys. Close enough to fool their friends, as long as nobody looked too hard at them.”
“Being covered in vomit would keep people away,” said Ellison. “So it’s a dead end.”
“No,” said Matilda. “Not a dead end. I know who did this.”